The 2012 IIHF U18 Tournament is upon us and, as in recent years, has the international scouting community licking its chops. This year's edition once again features a number of young men representing their country on the international scene who will hear their names called at the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh. For many of them, this tournament will be the pinnacle of all their work this season and will leave a lasting impression – whether good or bad – in the minds and notebooks of what should be well over 120 NHL scouts in attendance. For all of them, this event will be an opportunity to go out and give it everything they've got for their native country, a motivation that often has no rival in the minds and hearts of 16-18 year olds. But which country will benefit most from that attitude? What teams can least afford to take a night off? Which players should be pushing the hardest for a victory in the tournament's final game? Here's what you can expect from the frontrunners for a gold medal at the 2012 IIHF U18 Tournament.
On the heels of three straight U18 gold medal victories, there's little doubt that Team USA is the opponent everyone will be gunning for. The team is however now coached by first time tournament participant and ex-NHLer Danton Cole, who is taking over the reins from the highly successful Ron Rolston, whose tournament teams have never missed the championship game. These shoes will be big ones for Cole to fill, but he will have Team USA's biggest strengths to lean on: familiarity, chemistry, depth, regiment, routine and team spirit. The entire opening day roster will consist of players from the famed USNDT program with the exception of St. Sebastian's Daniel O'Regan, albeit he too has a seven games worth of USHL experience with the USNDTP. Returning from last year's entry are highly ranked NHL prospects Jacob Trouba (committed to Michigan) and Nicolas Kerdiles (committed to Wisconsin), both of whom are expected to carry a fair share of responsibility throughout the tournament. The team will also be amongst the oldest, only bringing along three 1995 born players from the U17 team. Look for team USA to feature a bit of everything and throw out three or four very balanced, hardworking lines. The team should also be amongst the fittest and most athletic, two attributes that often pay off in spades in the third period when games are on the line. Survival of the fittest is a motto that Team USA has certainly been able to attest to over the past four U18 tournaments.
Keep an eye on:
G Collin Olson
The Minnesota native doesn't posses the most experience of the team's goaltending options, but he's simply been the most solid of late. Featuring a solid, yet not perfect all-round game, he plans on making this event his coming out party. Look for him to raise his stock, seeing as how he's currently not even amongst the top 15 ranked North America goaltenders.
D Brady Skjei
Committed to Minnesota, the 6'2, 203 pound defenseman is capable of many things. There are only a few teams that have the kind of players who can give him a real challenge. He'll be here for his nation, but also to solidify his position as a first round draft pick this summer.
D Jacob Trouba
A future Wolverine with great size, he has a complete game and is expected to go in the top half of the NHL draft this summer, if not the top 10. He'll be given every opportunity to make a major impression on the team's fortunes this spring, all within the context of unified team play. Expect him to make an impact in all three zones and on special teams.
D Seth Jones
Son of a former NBA player Popeye Jones, the 6'3, 201 pound 17-year-old is considered a possible top five pick in the 2013 NHL draft. There are few players in this tournament who possess the size, skill set and all-round abilities of this young defenseman, who has a few excellent teammates to lean on when the going gets rough.
W Riley Barber
Committed to Miami of Ohio, the stocky Barber has been coming along nicely in 2012. Not yet a top scorer of note, he's getting there and more importantly, has the type of gumption and wherewithal to be the difference when the money is on the line.
A bitter 3-2 OT loss to the US in last spring's gold medal game in front of 6'000 fans in Crimmitschau, Germany, has left a sour taste for the talented Swedes, one they hope to permanently erase over the next ten days. Fresh off a WJC gold medal, everybody's seemingly favorite hockey nation has solidified itself as one of the hands down top four hockey countries on the planet. Its program has been churning out solid NHLers for years and features one of the world's top leagues despite a population of less than 12 million people. As usual, the Swedes had a plethora of players to choose from and will feature two of the biggest guns expected to grace U18 ice this spring in Filip Forsberg and Sebastian Collberg, two members of the WJC gold medalist and expected top half first rounders at this summer's NHL draft. Also not to be forgotten are surefire 2012 draftees Oscar Dansk (goalie), Ludwig Bystrom, Christian Djoos and Hampus Lindholm (all defensemen) as well as Erik Karlsson (OTT), Tobias Tornkvist and Ludvig Nilsson (all forwards). Also exciting will be the performances of Sweden's future junior stalwarts Jacob de la Rose, Alex Wennberg and Andre Burakovsky. Each is expected to be a major topic for a future NHL draft. The team itself is top fit and full of players to fill every possible role. Coach Rikard Gronborg has good reason to believe that the technical skill and character of the players in the team combined with the right tactic and in-game bench decisions should be enough to garner a medal – and most would agree – but the question remains whether it will be the gold this time around?
Keep an eye on:
G Oscar Dansk, Brynas Juniors
He's amongst Europe's top three goalies for the upcoming NHL draft on just about every list of rankings out there. He's played a bundle this past season and has the kind of athleticism, quickness, size and mental stamina that has scouts smiling.
D Hampus Lindholm, Rogle senior and junior teams
He just played a regular role in helping his team gain promotion into the SEL, something few thought would be possible heading into the season. Now the 6'2 defenseman is on everyone's list and is even being talked about as a possible top 15 pick. He's already played 71 games this winter, totaling eight goals and 30 points. A big role at this tournament could see him be this year's Jonas Brodin (MIN).
F Filip Forsberg, Leksand senior and junior teams
It's been a monster year for Europe's number one prospect entering the 2012 NHL draft. He was a monster at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, he gained gold at the WJC, and many have him pegged as a top five pick this summer. Thing is, he didn't really score at the WJC and he only had 10 goals and 20 points in 53 total games with his men's team in Swedish second pro league. Not bad, but not outstanding either. Watch him gain a lot of attention – and wind up second fiddle in scoring to Sebastian Collberg once again.
F Sebastian Collberg, Frolunda senior and junior teams
At home he's been good, but not great, only contributing moderately to Frolunda's U20 team. Internationally, he's been a beast this winter. Those performances have him pegged as a top 25 pick in this summer's entry draft. Don't be surprised if he turns this tournament into his personal house of offensive pain. There's just something about wearing those three crowns on his chest that gets him all fired up.
F Gustav Possler, MODO senior and junior teams
The 5'11 and 172 pound winger may just find himself in a top-nine forward role. He's had a big winter, having played a total of 67 games, putting up 39 goals and 64 points along the way. Most impressive were his 40 points in 37 games for MODO's U20 team as a 17-year-old. This led to him suiting up for two SEL games, where he even managed to score his first pro goal. Having Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund watching over his development surely hasn't been of detriment, something he'll continue to show in this tournament.
No country on the planet has a larger pool of hockey players to choose from than Canada. This applies to every tournament their men's teams participate in. As the motherland of the sport as we have come to know it, the country also enters every tournament as the team all other nations are looking to take down. This spring, Coach Jesse Wallin will lead another group of young men consisting solely of CHL players nationwide. These young men have generally played 66-72 games in the past season and have done so to large crowds and a regular audience of scouts. Thus a tournament of this nature hardly seems to faze the players, who do have the real disadvantage of hardly knowing each other coming in. This year's team once again features only but a few players expected to go high in the upcoming draft – namely defenseman Matt Dumba and center Brendan Gaunce – but will likely line up over a dozen players who will hear their names called this June in Pittsburgh. The team features a good mix of size, skating prowess, and mobility.
The scoring responsibility will no doubt fall into the hands of the aforementioned Gaunce, but also William Carrier, Scott Kosmachuk, Mike Winther, Troy Bourke, Anthony Mantha, Gemel Smith and most especially Kerby Rychel should all be capable of heavily influencing the attack at any given time. The key component could be the newly added Hunter Shinkaruk, who is coming off a 49 goals and 91 point season for the Medicine Hat Tigers. He also chipped in 11 points in eight playoff games. The defense should once again consist of a fairly all-round group led by Dumba, who will get solid support from the highly ranked Damon Severson and the recently added Ryan Pulock, who just had a monster year for the Brandon Wheat Kings with 19 goals, 60 points and a +33 rating. The 16 year old Calgarian Josh Morrissey will look to make his mark on the international ice hockey community after a big year for the Prince Albert Raiders. However, the goaltending position could become a bit of a concern if anything should happen to starter Brandon Whitney, who had a convincingly strong regular season, having stolen the starting job in Victoriaville from David Honzik on his way to a 22-4-4 record and 2.74 goals against average. His back-ups in this tournament weren't nearly as successful this past season.
Despite needing to face the US in the preliminary round, it should be safe to assume that Canada will not let any of Denmark, Finland or the Czech Republic deter them from one of the group's top two seeds. Anything can happen in the playoff round, but expect the team to once again be playing for a medal. The program should be extra motivated after having lost the bronze to Russia at last year's U18.
Keep an eye on:
D Matt Dumba, Red Deer Rebels
The average sized defenseman made his mark in the Czech Republic already last August in the Ivan Hlinka tournament. Since then, he's had a lot of press and attention and some have even talked about him being a top-five pick in June. Fact is though, it may all have been too much, too soon, as Dumba saw his overall game slide a bit in the second half of the season. In addition, the types of punishing hits everyone loved to see him throw have practically become a thing of the past. Will Dumba use this tournament to get back on track and show the scouting community that any perceived drop in play was merely a lull?
F Kerby Rychel, Windsor Spitfires
The 6'1, 200 pound left winger came out of the blue this past season to post 41 goals and 74 points in 68 games. He'll no doubt be looked to as an offensive cog in what should be a very capable attack. His game isn't fancy or too complicated. He goes to the net and he gets to it as well. That type of simplistic effectiveness will go a long way against opponents with shaky or inexperienced defenses.
F Brendan Gaunce, Belleville Bulls
Brendan has spent this past season slowly but surely rising up the charts, putting up a point-per-game in his second OHL season and is now widely considered a top 20, if not top 15 pick. Last year, Mark Scheifele (WIN) entered the U18 tournament with a similar profile, became the team's leader, and then heard his name called as the seventh overall pick. Is it now Gaunce's turn to take this path?
F Sam Reinhart, Kootenay Ice
The third and youngest son of former NHLer Paul Reinhart, Sam just completed his first full WHL season and put up 28 goals and 62 points in the process. A huge all-round success as a rookie, Sam is the youngest player on this Canadian squad and will have little pressure to perform. However, performing big is in his blood. One need look no further than older brother Griffin, who is expected to be a top 10 draft pick this summer.
F Scott Laughton, Oshawa Generals
The Ontario native took his game to new heights this past season, proving to be quite resilient and effective in all three zones. He more than doubled his output from the season before gathering 32 assists and 53 points. He's also no stranger to the rougher side of the game, having racked up 101 penalty minutes. If he can keep himself in check on the larger ice surface and a different style of reffing, he could turn this tournament into his showcase.
The returning bronze medalist will not feature the names Nail Yakupov and Nikita Kucherov in its lineup, two boys who simply did what they wanted at last year's tournament. There is however still a chance that Mikhail Grigorenko, who put up 18 points in seven contests at last season's U18 tournament, could be added to the team, should his Quebec Remparts be eliminated from the QMJHL playoffs. Either way, the Russians once again feature a line-up chock full of top international talents, many of whom will be heavily observed by both NHL and CHL scouts. Coach Andrei Parfyonov has an abundance of riches in seeking gold this spring, starting with Europe's most highly touted goalie for the upcoming NHL draft, the 6'3 Andrei Vasilevski, who already put up an outstanding .936 save percentage at last year's U18 tournament. He topped that off this past winter with a silver medal at the WJC, where he posted an incredible 2.01 goals against average and a whopping .953 save percentage. All he's missing now is a gold medal, something he fully plans on getting at this tourney. He'll receive some considerable assistance in this endeavor, as players such as Daniil Zharkov, Denis Kamaev, Vyacheslav Osnovin, Alexei Filippov, Bogdan Yakimov and Anton Slepshyev, a first overall KHL draft pick, will look to keep the puck in the opponent's zone for a majority of each and every game. They have the talent to do so and no less than Zharkov and Kamaev are well aware of the physical game the opponents will subject them to as both spent this past year in the CHL. This is not, however, the all-star forward cast of previous tournaments. Furthermore, some lack of certainly can be located in the defensive constellation. While the 6'4, 205 pound Nikita Zadorov (turning 17 this week) and 6'3, 187 pound Yegor Malenkikh are somewhat recognized and valued commodities around the scouting community, Alexei Bereglazov, Nikita Lisov, Damir Galin (already 225 pounds) and Kirill Maslov are each defenseman who are on the map, ranked amongst the bottom 50 skaters by Central Scouting. This obviously doesn't need to mean anything as it's not the first time Russia has submitted a somewhat unknown group of defensemen who've ultimately gone on to contribute heavily to obtaining a medal. Expect Vasilevski to compensate for a few mistakes they may make along the way. Also expect a few players to go from relative anonymity to a highly sought after status. And finally, expect a medal, and don't be surprised if it's gold.
Keep an eye on:
G Andrei Vasilevski, Tolpar Ufa
He's the most highly decorated goalie in the tournament. He's likely simply the best goaltender in the tournament. If any one goalie can win this thing on his own, it's Vasilevski. In addition to his international heroics to date, he put of a combined 2.37 goals against average and .937 save percentage in 29 games for his MHL club in Russia. Look for him to play as though he's on a mission, especially as of the playoff round.
D Nikita Zadorov, CSKA
Make note of this name and don't forget it. He's still 16 and is already a giant playing regular minutes in Russia's second division. He likes things rough and tumble, but has offensive upside. Chances are, he's in the KHL or CHL next season. This tournament should solidify his position as a top draft prospect in 2013.
F Daniil Zharkov, Belleville Bulls
Don't let the 36 points in 50 OHL games fool you. Daniil had some injury problems and it took a while for him to adjust to the OHL after a stint in the USHL. But once he did, it was lights out. Some feel he could have first round potential, and he's seen as a very 'North America friendly' person, but for now, simply watch him put other player's weaknesses on display throughout the whole tournament. It should be his oyster.
F Anton Slepshyev,
Ranked as the 10th overall European for the upcoming draft by Central Scouting, Anton has many of the traits most scouts desire. He spent the bulk of this past season in the KHL and will receive a first line role in this tournament. He took part in last year's U18, where he had three goals and four points. Those numbers should at least be doubled this year.
F Mikhail Grigorenko, Quebec Remparts
Sure, there's no telling whether he'll be at the tournament. Chances are he won't be. But if he does make it over, he immediately becomes the highest profile player there and possesses the type of skill that could make opponents look foolish. Alone his presence would make Russia the gold medal favorite.
If you're looking for one team that could throw a loop into any expectations, look no further than the traditionally feisty Finns. Always hardworking and never to be underestimated, this year's squad features some top-flight talent with no less than four players currently considered amongst the top 15 skaters in Europe for the upcoming NHL draft. As usual, the team will feature a highly regarded goaltender, 6'2 Joonas Korpisalo, who is currently considered one of the top-three goaltending prospects in Europe. He recently raised his stock at the Five Nations tournament and will be looking to engrain himself permanently into the minds of NHL scouts with a performance to remember. He'll not be alone. Coach Jussi Tapola received some good news when it was verified that slender winger and top Finish draft prospect Teuvo Teravainen would be joining the team for the tournament. He's been climbing the charts all season long and should be a lock for the first round in June. In him, Aleksander Barkov, Juuso Ikonen, Rasmus Ristolainen and Ville Pokka, the team features no less than five players who saw a regular shift in the SM Liiga, Finland's top men's league, this past season. They will be looked to for leadership and guidance in deciding whether Finland makes it to the medal round or not. Center Esa Lindell, who is 6'3 and 190 pounds, will also be looked at for a major role after putting up a total of 58 points in 59 games for Jokerit Helsinki's U20 team. As usual, the team will boast a cast of strong skating, well-schooled players who'll look to win each game. Somewhat different from teams of the past, Finland will also have eight players who are 6'2 or taller. Coach Tapola surely hopes he's got the right combination of size, skill, heart and determination to dismantle one of the favorites on the way to a medal.
Keep an eye on:
D Ville Pokka, Karpat
The 6'0, 198 pound defender is one of the smaller boys on Finland's blueline, but he's a highly rated defenseman with loads of potential for the future. Mistake-prone at the moment, much of that was due to taking a regular shift for the first time in the SM Liiga. With that in mind, and his four point performance at the WJC this past winter, look for Ville to be a man amongst boys in this tournament, his second U18 attendance.
F Alexander Barkov, Tappara
Son of a former Spartak Moscow and later Tappara star of the same name, Alexander appears predestined for an offensive role throughout his just now blossoming career. He spent the bulk of this past season putting up 16 points in 32 SM Liiga games. That's no small feat for any rookie, much less a 16 year old kid. Not draft-eligible for another two years, keep this name in mind when watching him pivot one of Finland's top two lines.
F Juuso Ikonen, Espoo Blues
Another youngster whose draft year will not be upon him this upcoming June, Juuso just completed a surprisingly strong season, having worked his way up to Espoo's men's team, where he was good for eight goals and 15 points in 32 games. He's put on a dominating offensive performance for the U18 and U17 squads throughout this past season with a combined 25 points in 19 games and there's no reason to think it'll stop here. Look for him to be a thorn in everyone's side while solidifying his draft ranking for 2013.
F Teuvo Teravainen, Jokerit Helsinki
There's simply no getting around it; Teuvo is one of the top talents in this tournament. Hockey pundits such as Bob MacKenzie are already talking about him being a logical draft choice of the Anaheim Ducks in June so as to at least sentimentally replace Teemu Selanne. Before the NHL beckons, he'll have to add a lot of muscle mass and strength, but he's definitely got those uncanny hands, vision and hockey sense that every team craves. Opponents will have their problems keeping a leash on him in this tournament and exactly that is what the scouting community is looking forward to.
Team Czech Republic
The good news for the Czech Republic is that it is hosting this tournament and is expected to enjoy some excellent, excellent fan support at all of its home games. In addition, their WJC team had quite a tournament for itself, which a wonderful sign for a program that has been sputtering for a few years now. Nonetheless, there's not a player from that team who'll be here at this tournament. The 2011 U18 also featured a Czech team that just barely avoided the relegation round. Coach Jiri Veber will have his hands full in a group that features very strong programs from the US, Canada and Finland. His consolation prize: A Friday match-up with Team Denmark one day after the Danes face the Canadians. After that, he'll have to hope that the Pardubice product Marek Langhamer is able to decide a game or two on his own in goal. He's already played 45 games this winter and is considered amongst the top-five European goalies available for the upcoming draft. If he can't take the bull by the horns, then the team may have to turn to Dominik Hrachovina, who has spent this winter playing juniors in Finland, where the Brno native has played 36 games for Tappara's U18 squad. After that, the team will hope that its hodgepodge patchwork of kids from all over the country will somehow come up with the chemistry and national spirit necessary to make a medal game appearance. It wouldn't be the first time. Forwards Dominik Volek, Adam Chlapik, Euvstathio Soumelidis and just-turned 16 year old Jakub Vrana will be counted on the carry a good portion of the offensive load while Jan Kostalek, Libor Sulak and especially Petr Sidlik will be counted on to right the ship on the blueline. Size won't be a problem either as the team boasts a whopping 14 kids who come in at 6 foot or taller, with seven of them 6'2 or taller. Still, there's no overshadowing the lack of CHLers Patrik Machac, Michal Plutnar and expected first rounder Radek Faksa, who could come over his Kitchener Rangers were to bow out of the playoffs.
Keep an eye on:
G Marek Langhamer
Many feel the team's fortunes could lie in his hands. Certainly, if the medal round is to be achieved, the young man will have to show some heroics. It's not like the skill set isn't there, and his athleticism is amongst the best in the tourney.
F Dominik Volek
His dad David had a few nice seasons with the New York Islanders and will always be remembered for his game 7 overtime goal against a powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins club back in the spring of '93. More than just coach Veber will be hoping Dominik has that kind of magical whatever running in his veins over the next ten days. Still, the WHL forward had lower stats than just about every forward on team Canada's roster, leading some to wonder if he's even draft-worthy.
F Euvstathio Soumelidis
Don't expect an understandable answer if you ask someone how to pronounce his name, but do be certain that you're going to recognize him when he's on the ice. Coming in at 6'2 and 215 pounds, he's a boy in a man's body. He's spent the past two years playing juniors in Finland and will be looking to raise some eyebrows.
F Jakub Vrana
Probably the tournament's youngest player, he's spent the entire season racking up points for Linkoping's (Sweden) U16, U18 and even U20 teams. He may already be the most skilled player for the Czechs and he won't be draft eligible until 2014.
Relegation round X factor:
Team Latvia, which earned its way back into the Division 1 group last spring, and finds itself in the group that most favorably fits its playing style. Much like Denmark and Norway, the Latvians continually show themselves to be too good for the lower ranks, but just not strong enough to remain in Division I. This year, however, the team is entering a tournament where not two, but rather one team will be relegated. The Latvians have their sights set on not being that team. Helping them along the way will be Shattuck St. Mary's star Teodors Blugers, Shattuck's St. Mary's defenseman Rudolfs Kalvitis, offensive defenseman Matiss Gelazis, 6'2 and 187 pound winger Martins Lavrovs and the goalies Ivars Punnenovs and Elvis Merzlikins, both of whom play junior hockey in Switzerland. They will join a group of players who have spent the past season primarily playing for junior clubs in Riga or Liepajas. The team will also feature the highly touted 16-year-old Rihard Bukarts. With a population of just over 2.2 million, the smallest country at the tournament has good reason to believe it can and will avoid relegation.